For a Human Rights Revolution

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is 75 years old, but the world is in crisis and human rights are under threat everywhere…

Human rights for future

10 December 2023 marks the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a landmark document that enshrines the inalienable rights that everyone is entitled to as a human being – Photo by Christian Lue on Unsplash

By the editorial team – On 10 December 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was proclaimed in Paris. For its authors, this text committed the whole of humanity to a new, more fraternal world. After a war that had cost millions of lives, after the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust, the 58 member states of the United Nations had decided to make the defence of human rights a cardinal value.

Universal rights, really?

75 years on, respect for human rights no longer seems to be a priority. Democracies are increasingly reluctant to promote these rights among authoritarian regimes, while the latter continue to flout them with impunity, by virtue of their economic or military power… and influence. Just over a year ago, for example, several countries voted against a Human Rights Council resolution to examine the issue of Chinese repression of the Uighur people. It has to be said that with some 200 countries now recognized by the UN, compared to 58 in 1948, the balance has shifted.

But it cannot be said that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights lacks power or inspiration. All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. It would seem quite a bit difficult, for example, to question its first article. Yet voices around the world are increasingly criticizing the Declaration and questioning its very nature.

Rights under attack from all sides

When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed in 1948, a wonderful utopia was achieved. For the first time, the idea of creating an international legal order based not only on the interests of sovereign states, but also on those of individuals, not on the basis of their merits, but on the basis of what they are, was put forward.

We are now at the end of a cycle in which the United Nations has built a project for collective security, international law and the peaceful integration of the world.  As the UN Secretary-General recently noted at the opening of the 52nd session of the Human Rights Council, “the Universal Declaration is under assault from all sides”. For the first time in decades, extreme poverty and hunger are on the rise; the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a pandemic of civil and political rights violations. Not to mention the record numbers of people forced to flee violence, conflict and rights abuses…

Climate change, systemic change

For some thinkers, economic inequality, injustice, human rights abuses of all kinds and, of course, climate change are all symptoms of the same malady, linked to deep-seated patterns in the global political and economic order that work together to produce these outcomes.

Indeed, climate change is the most serious threat to human rights today, as recognized by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Rising temperatures have direct negative impacts such as droughts, floods, heat waves and extreme weather events. These changes affect all living species and therefore some of the most fundamental human rights: the right to life, self-determination, health, development, food, water, sanitation and adequate housing.

To address these systemic patterns, which have the greatest impact on the most marginalized and vulnerable communities and individuals, it therefore appears obvious to challenge a global economic system that unfairly distributes burdens among populations, regions and countries. And an effective alternative to this system must include not only an end to greenhouse gas emissions, but also the protection of human rights for all.

Human Rights 75 initiative

Through its 2023 theme “Freedom, Equality and Justice for All” the United Nations Human Rights 75 initiative seeks to promote greater knowledge of the universality of the Declaration – Photo: United Nations, all rights reserved

Is this even possible? Some people believe it is not only possible, but essential. The Green New Deal is a prominent example of this systems thinking in the United States. The Green New Deal seeks to mobilize all aspects of American society on a scale not seen since World War II to achieve zero net greenhouse gas emissions and economic prosperity for all.

In Canada, the LEAP Manifesto envisions a country that is not only powered entirely by renewable energy, but where the opportunities of the energy transition are used as a springboard to address all racial and gender inequalities, and to make self-help and environmental protection key areas of economic growth.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the European Green Party wants a Europe that not only promotes the greening of the economy, but also social and intergenerational justice, inclusive democracy, citizen empowerment, diversity, the rule of law, international peace, and the sustainable development goals.

The leap manifesto

The leap manifesto, “A call for a Canada based on caring for the earth and one another” – Image: Leapmanifesto.org, all rights reserved

Change won’t happen without us

Each of these projects envisions a society in which power and its benefits are redistributed fairly, a society governed not only by the rule of law but also by the ideals of justice, fraternity and the promotion of human rights.

The ideal of systemic change takes us beyond the rights of individuals or particular groups to a society in which power and benefits are redistributed, a society governed not only by the rule of law but also by ideals of fundamental fairness, including those relating to employment, education and access to health care, among others.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees the inherent dignity of all members of the human species and the inalienability of their rights.

To solve today’s problems, we must endeavour to respect and defend the fundamental framework of an international system based on multilateralism and the promotion of human rights. This is the only way to ensure freedom, peace and justice in the world.

But we can go further and move towards this ideal of systemic change. If this vision were to be embraced by a majority of countries, it could even represent a new political era, but also a new era for human rights. But change is not the responsibility of governments alone. Everything is still possible, but it requires the will and active commitment of each and every one of us. Together, for a human rights revolution!